The Law of Conservation of Effort

Transferring your effort to show preparation means less effort during real-time show execution, and vice-versa.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

If you’ve been through high-school level integrated science, or physics, you’ve probably heard of the “Laws of Conservation.” These laws hold that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed – they can only be transferred from one form to another. When you ignite a light bulb, for instance, the total energy in the universe remains the same. All that’s happening is the conversion of electrical energy into IR (thermal) energy, visible light, and maybe some ultraviolet light.

As I’ve done more shows and established patterns as an audio tech, I’ve come to believe that there is a conservation law that applies to show production. It reads like this:

For any part of any show for any individual, the effort required to put on the show cannot be created or destroyed. The effort can only be transferred from one part of the production process to another.

As a preliminary, concrete example, I offer you the story of a friend of mine. This friend of mine is a viola player. She learned to be a great sight-reader (a musician who can play music accurately by interpreting the score on the fly) because she didn’t want to spend a lot of time practicing individual pieces.

See what she did?

She transferred her effort away from practicing individual pieces, and put it into becoming great at playing “cold” from the music. (There are lots of people who make the opposite transfer, by the way.) The total effort required stayed the same. She just moved it around.

In my experience the “effort transfer” has implications for techs, musicians, promoters, and everybody else involved with making a show happen.

The Exchange

The graphic at the top of this post is a rudimentary diagram of what I’ve found to be the critical “energy exchange” involved in show production. The part of the exchange that I personally use most consciously is the time/ effort component. The way I’ve put it is: “I’d rather get here early, get set, and then be bored for an hour, instead of running around in a panic for 15 minutes.”

The point is that you can trade time for effort (or, perhaps more accurately, effort expenditure rate). If I arrive early, I can carefully – even leisurely – prepare for a show over the course of hours. I can take my time, stop to converse, and have plenty of “buffer” to deal with equipment problems. If I’m later than I want to be, I’m forced to expend the necessary effort in a much shorter space. On the extreme end of things, it’s possible that I won’t be able to apply effort fast enough to have the show ready on time.

The other “effort exchange” in the diagram is with activity. This is really just a corollary of the effort/ time transfer. If I’m active in working on a show, that means that I’m putting effort into getting things done. If I’m slacking off, or engaged in something other than making the show happen, then I will soon reach the point where I have to engage in a LOT of activity in a big hurry. I will have to apply a lot of effort in a very small amount of time.

Fair enough?

So, what does this mean for you?

The Implications

No matter who you are – tech, musician, promoter, whoever – I think there’s one major take-away:

Great shows come from great prep.

Take the example of this article about monitor world for Bruce Springsteen. (Monitor world is found on bigger shows, and it refers to a situation where audio is split to separate consoles for FOH/ audience sound and the on-stage mixes. Bruce Springsteen’s show is so big that monitor world itself is split. Pretty sweet, yeah?) Troy Milner says something very revealing near the end of the first page:

“We have snapshots for all of the songs, and I’m up to 205. There are some songs that I know Bruce won’t do, but every one is programmed for me on the snapshots.”

Let that sink in for a bit.

Mixing monitors for The E Street Band is so intense that Troy Milner and Monty Carlo have hundreds of console presets so that they can keep up. Sure, these guys do realtime work during the show, but think about how much prep time that entailed.

There is no way that they could just “walk up” to the show and do the same job, with no prep.

It’s the same at all scales. If you’re lazy about your prep, pulling off the show at high quality means that you have to be really good at pulling off flawless work.

Flawless work, done on the fly, with no safety net.

If you make a mistake, or aren’t ready, or something just decides not to go your way, there’s no time for a fix. You either have to spend even more effort, even faster, to recover…or crash, burn, and then have to recover from the trainwreck.

  • This is why audio humans should go in early, test things, tune the wedges, and make sure FOH sounds like music – all with plenty of time to spare.
  • This is why lighting people should go in early, test things, write their cues in advance, and know which cues accent which songs at which time.
  • This is why musicians should plan their set lists before the show is actually happening.
  • This is why bands should really know their songs.
  • This is why guitar players should have their pedal interconnections sorted out in advance.
  • This is why keys players should be able to setup their MIDI and audio rigs in their sleep.
  • This is why drummers should keep their kit maintained.

The benefits are huge. On the audio side, putting my effort into prep (especially for the monitors) means that I have far fewer issues that will have to be fixed in a huge hurry. On the musician side, taking the time to prep well means that you have much more “real-time” effort to spend on listening to each other and being spontaneous during the actual show. Also, if you do great prep, and are running at “low effort” during the real-time part of the show, you have a much larger effort reserve available if something does go screwy.

You also have a much larger effort reserve on hand to make amazing things happen.

If you want to be dazzling “off-the-cuff,” then you have to do your homework beforehand.